White House did not call Mubarak’s ouster a coup, still backs Muslim Brotherhood

Special to WorldTribune.com

By Gregory R. Copley, Editor, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs

The new Egyptian Government of Interim President Adly Mansour faces major strategic challenges from internal conflict and economic crisis, but this has been substantially exacerbated, and to some degree caused, by the fact that the U.S. Obama White House has refused to sign off on language which would call the power change anything other than a military coup. That terminology would automatically terminate U.S. military and economic aid.

But what is striking by comparison is the fact that the White House — which favored military action on Feb. 11, 2011, to replace President Hosni Mubarak with a transition to the Muslim Brotherhood leadership of Mohammed Morsi — did not in 2011 invoke the “coup” terminology which would have cut off the aid provisions to Egypt under the 1978 Camp David Accords.

Anti-Morsi protesters in Cairo on June 29.  /AP
Anti-Morsi protesters in Cairo on June 29. /AP

Several factors are strategically significant when assessing the outlook for Egypt and the region over the coming months:

1. The removal of President Morsi may have been no more “illegal” in U.S. terms than the removal of President Mubarak, given that on both occasions the Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces acted in response to widespread public disorder and protests (more in the case of Morsi than in the case of Mubarak), and in each instance committed to an independent civil interim Presidency, as well as to constitutional talks, and new elections within a reasonable timeframe;

2. The actual election of President Morsi (June 23-24, 2012) following the 2011 military removal of President Mubarak may have been “less than democratic”, contrary to claims by the White House, given that U.S. President Barack Obama made it absolutely clear to the Egyptian military leadership and the electoral commission that any result other than the election of Mohammed Morsi would not be recognized as legitimate by Washington. This may have caused the vote count to be curtailed, and the “acceptable” (to Washington) decision announced. The very strong prospect that this situation prevailed, along with the reality that the 2013 protest-led transition was little different in substance to the 2011 transition, could allow U.S. Congressional officials to maneuver themselves dialectically to sustain U.S. aid to Egypt over the critical months of hardship which Egypt now faces. The initial Obama rush to legitimize the Morsi election now fuels the belief among Morsi supporters and the Muslim Brothers (Ikhwan) that they have now been robbed of a democratically-earned presidency, thus fueling ongoing protest;

3. Armed insurrection against the new interim government is likely to continue to escalate, given the sense of a “stolen right” and by the fact that supporters of the Ikhwan outside the country were providing economic, political, and weapons support for the pro-Morsi faction. This response was entirely anticipated by the Egyptian Armed Forces, as demonstrated by the rapid and harsh suppression of Ikhwani violent protests such as the one outside the Republic Guard barracks (where Morsi was believed to be held) on the morning of July 8,with the loss of 42 lives and 232 wounded. This military determination to constrain violent opposition, however, has a political cost. The Republican Guard incident, for example, meant that the conservative al-Nour party, which had supported the removal of Morsi, withdrew from talks to form an interim administration. Nonetheless, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) cannot afford to relax its policy of rapid and comprehensive suppression of such protests, for fear that they would spread with the onset of worsening economic and food conditions;

4. There will possibly be a temptation for the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the Presidency, as the economic conditions continue to worsen due to the crisis, to make gestures as sops to various international and domestic audiences. The nomination on the morning of July 8, of former UN nuclear regulator Mohamed ElBaradei to serve as Vice President, was one such gesture, this time to placate international audiences, given that ElBaradei had wide global publicity and was seen as a “Westernized” leader, when in fact he is not. Moreover, ElBaradei’s popular appeal in Egypt is virtually non-existent, given his extremely low voter approval during the incomplete June 2012 Presidential elections. [At the same time, lawyer Ziad Bahaa el Din, 48 (Social Democratic Party), was nominated to become Prime Minister, again largely as a sop to international audiences and secular urban audiences in Egypt.] To appease or distract domestic audiences, it has been suggested by some external observers that the SCAF could raise again the specter of foreign threats to Egypt’s vital Nile waters from Ethiopian dam-building operations1, and to support a revival of anti-Israeli activities via HAMAS in the Palestinian Gaza territories. Significantly, the Nile distraction was attempted by former President Morsi (and by former President Mubarak), and this failed to get widespread resonance among the Egyptian population. Moreover, two other factors apply: the first is that the Egyptian Armed Forces could do little other than make some saber-rattling overflights of the Ethiopian dams with Egyptian Air Force F-16s (flown out of Sudanese bases) and there is no question of Egypt being able to sustain a full military campaign against Ethiopia, which is of equal population and, arguably, in a slightly more resilient economic position at present than Egypt. Secondly, Ethiopia has amply demonstrated, along with other Nile riparian states, that it is anxious to cooperate with Egypt and Sudan on Nile water management. On the question of revived hostility toward Israel, much of the same argument applies as to the resurrection of the “threat” from Ethiopia: it is an expensive ploy and would still not sufficiently distract from domestic economic issues, which, at the moment, are paramount for most Egyptians. Actually, although Israel is now moving along the path of its own domestic gas (and possibly oil) exploitation, there does exist some prospect for short-term revival in Egyptian gas trade with Israel, perhaps on a commercially-viable basis for Egypt;

5. Saudi Arabia is likely to continue, within its own now-constrained economic conditions, to offer maximum support for the new Egyptian Government. For Saudi Arabia, the restoration of a stable, secularly-managed Egypt would represent a significant reversal of the Ikhwani trend which, although neo-salafist, actually also threatened the Saudi fundamentalist Wahhabist movement. The Egyptian reversal also helps offset the Qatari support for the Ikhwani movements of Turkey and in some of the Syrian opposition. The Saudi Government essentially recognizes that the attempts to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad have failed, and it was more in Saudi Arabia’s interest to build some stability vis-à-vis Iran (as Syria’s principal backer) rather than see rampant Ikhwani movements which would ultimately threaten the House of Sa’ud. Bottom line is that Saudi Arabia wants a strong and stable Egypt as its major ally in the region, and this could only be achieved by the removal of Morsi. Thus, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are likely to do what they can to help ease Egypt’s short-term food and economic problems. Ongoing violence from the Ikhwani in Egypt, however, would continue to drive tourists away from Egypt, protracting the Egyptian ability to earn foreign exchange. What remains to be seen is whether the Egyptian Ikhwan, supported by foreign state allies, would attempt to undermine security of the Suez/Red Sea sea lanes (as Libya did in 1984), and in this regard Qatar and Turkey should be observed carefully;

6. The events in Egypt take a considerable amount of the focus, internationally, away from the Syrian crisis, and this could well allow the situation there to stabilize around what has already become a clear dominance of the territory as a whole by the Assad Government and Iran. At the same time, the military action in Egypt — where Morsi felt that he had cut off independent thought in the Armed Forces — served as a sober caution for the Turkish Government of Prime Minister Reçep Tayyip Erdogan, who, equally, has thought his military neutered (indeed, to a far greater extent than Egypt, that is the case). But to some extent, the focus on events in Egypt have taken pressure off Erdogan and his Ikhwan-based Government’s attempts to build a monolithic Islamist society and a neo-Ottomanist role in the Levant, the Arabian Peninsula and the Red Sea regions. Given the aggregate of events, the removal of Morsi is probably seen on balance in Tehran as being beneficial for Iran’s longterm strategic interests, although, as with Turkey, the image being projected of mass protests to change a government can be also seen as applicable to Iran, threatening the clerical rule there. Thus, the Iranian Government should be expected to be muted in its comments. Ultimately, however, Iran is competitive with Egypt for influence in the Horn of Africa and sub-Saharan Africa;

7. Again, in the aggregate, there was considerable relief in most parts of the U.S. Congress and the U.S. Defense Department with the activities which followed the June 30, uprising in Egypt. But the White House and State Department continue to favor the Ikhwani line as the “inevitable” vanguard of change in the Arab portions of the Middle East. In fact, there is no such inevitability about the Ikhwani approach, which does not, in fact, reflect a regional consensus, as post-Gadhafi elections proved in Libya, and as the Egyptian situation itself demonstrated. The Saudi government, albeit weakened economically (and with the age and poor health of King ‘Abdallah bin ‘Abd al-’Aziz al Sa’ud), was likely to press U.S. President Obama not to disrupt the process underway in Egypt. Now, with the Egyptian affair, the clear split between Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the one hand, and Qatar and Turkey on the other, is becoming evident. This leaves Iran geo-strategically a weak but dominant power. The People’s Republic of China (PRC), having been unable to gain confidence in Turkey, Iran, or Sudan as regional partners, may well reinforce its diplomacy with Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and, like Russia, stay firm in not approving U.S.-led efforts to undermine the Syrian situation further;

8. Finally, in all of this, the actions of Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces demonstrated that even though Egypt has been absolutely dependent on the U.S. for economic and military aid and support, Egypt was equally absolutely prepared to do what it had to do regardless of the views of the White House. The SCAF’s actions vindicated the belief that the U.S. could not determine the regional outcomes and, ultimately, would need Egypt more than Egypt needed Washington. That has now been demonstrated to be the result of the Obama administration’s psychological (if not physical) removal of U.S. hard power from the region — and, more importantly, the removal of the perception of U.S. military-strategic invincibility — and equally a result of the failure of the U.S. George W. Bush administration’s poorly-conceived military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. These two major wars demonstrated U.S. tactical success but strategic failure. The question now is how the U.S. and the West can rebuild credibility. In the short-term, however, the decision by the SCAF to defy the U.S. White House was almost certainly the only decision which could have been made in Cairo (and to the long-term benefit, as well, of the U.S.). Former Egyptian President Mubarak did not have the nerve to break with Washington.

Meanwhile, because of the ruinous year-long presidency of Morsi, the Egyptian economy is in worse shape than at any time in recent decades, and it is entering the fasting month of Ramadan without, it is believed, the necessary reserves of food for observant Muslims to break their fast each evening. There is some suggestion that food shortages over Ramadan and succeeding months will keep public unrest on the boil, forcing the new Government — essentially the administration of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces — to be particularly strict in suppressing unrest which could be exploited by pro-Morsi elements within the Muslim Brothers (Ikhwan).

By early 2013, it was becoming increasingly clear that the Egyptian economy was continuing to slow substantially, and that President Morsi had becoming increasingly determined to increase the hold which the Muslim Brothers held over political power. Unrest, and anti-Government demonstrations, became more frequent, not just in the more secular Cairo urban area, but in cities around the country.

On May 1,secular and opposition groups announced that they would begin collecting signatures for a petition demanding that President Morsi resign, and that they hoped to have 15-million signatures on it by June 30, 2013. At that point, they called for a rally outside the presidential palace in Cairo on June 30,  to present the petition and demand the President’s resignation. Mohamed Abdel-Aziz, one of the movement’s organizers, said: “Whoever wants the revolution to prevail must rebel; whoever wants to achieve bread, freedom and social justice must rebel. Let 30 June be a decisive day for the revolution.” The press conference was attended by several opposition figures, including lawyer Hamdi El-Fakharani, member of the National Salvation Front Hussein Abdel-Ghani, former MP Gamal Zahran and former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi.

By May 29, the petition organizers of the movement, now officially called Tamarod (“rebellion”) said that they had already collected 7,540,535 signatures.

By June 29, the day before the planned mass rally in Cairo — and after a period of mounting anti-government protests and violence — Tamarod indicated that it had gained 22,134,465 signatures on the petition, and Tamarod spokesman Mahmud Badr announced that the number of signatures was higher than the number of people who had voted for Mohamed Morsi during the 2012 elections, at which he won 13.23-million votes (51.7 percent of the votes cast).

The presidency and the Muslim Brothers attempted to paint the petition as a fraud, with forged signatures, but the growing scope of the opposition made it clear that the government was likely to face a substantial protest on June 30. Through the first months of 2013, President Morsi had attempted to raise external threats to Egypt’s Nile waters — as a result of Ethiopia’s new dam project — as a major rallying call for Egyptians to support the Government. But this campaign, although backed by Egyptian support for anti-Ethiopian rebel movements, did not win widespread traction in Egypt, and public discontent with the government continued to mount.

The protests began in Cairo, and other cities, on June 30, a full year after President Morsi took office. Hundreds of thousands of protestors gathered, but so, too, did thousands of supporters of the President, organized by the Muslim Brothers (Ikhwan). At least 16 people died and at least 340 were injured in the clashes on and around the June 30, 2013, protests. President Morsi resisted the demonstrations, even though the headquarters of the Ikhwan was attacked and burnt, and said on July 2, that he would not stand down. On July 3, however, Minister of Defense and Minister of Military Production, and Chairman of the Supreme Military Council, Gen. Abdul Fatah Saeed Hussein Khalil al-Sisi, who had been appointed by President Morsi because of his support for the Islamist approach to governance, announced that the military had decided that the Morsi government had not fulfilled its mandate and was being removed.

Gen. Sisi said that the Islamist-dominated Constitution would be suspended and would be rewritten, and that an Interim President, the new President of the Constitutional Court, Adly Mansour, 67, would oversee the redrafting of the Constitution, and would then call for new Parliamentary and Presidential elections. That process was expected to take nine months to a year, but, in reality, would probably take more time. Int. President Mansour had been Vice President of the Constitutional Court since 1992, before taking over the Presidency of the Court on July 1. The announcement was met with widespread popular demonstrations on the night of July 3, with fireworks being let off all over Cairo, but also with supporters of Mohamed Morsi saying that he would be restored, in subsequent elections, as president.

Meanwhile, former President Morsi was being held by the Presidential Guard incommunicado under house arrest in Cairo, and the Ikhwani Freedom and Justice Party chief, Saad el-Katatni, and his deputy, Rashad Al-Bayoumi, were arrested, with warrants out for other Ikhwani leaders. Significantly, Muhammad Rabee al-Zawahiri, the younger brother of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Al Qaida leader, had said immediately after the June 30, demonstrations that he would launch a jihad if Morsi was toppled and Ikhwanis were arrested.

The Qatar-based broadcaster, al-Jazeera, broadcast a taped message, prepared in advance by President Morsi, after the military intervention was announced, and the Cairo studio of the broadcaster was immediately raided by security forces and several al-Jazeera staff were detained.

The U.S. White House, which had thrown its full weight behind the election and administration of Mohammed Morsi, was noticeably displeased with the military intervention, and began circulating proposals to cut U.S. aid to Egypt on the basis of the “coup”.

Reports from Cairo indicated that the new administration and the government of Saudi Arabia were preparing to coordinate an improvement in ties, especially given the fact that the Egyptian economy was in poor shape and needed an injection of financial aid if there was not to be unrest during the forthcoming Ramadan period. The governments of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates issued statements of support for the Egyptian action. The Egyptian pound continued to decline in value against the U.S. dollar and euro during the first half of 2013.